In the year or two after Disrupting Class
was published, I spoke at a lot of education technology conferences
around the country. That wasn’t a surprise. Along with Clayton
Christensen and Curtis Johnson, I had written a book suggesting that
although technology had made little impact in education to this point
despite some big investments in it, it was all about to change. If
instead of layering technology over our existing monolithic system we
embraced the power of disruptive innovation, then technology could be
catalytic in creating a student-centric education system.
I was new to the edtech conference scene, but out of all the conferences at which I spoke, one in particular stood out: the Virtual School Symposium, which iNACOL,
the international K-12 online learning association, held. At the event
in Arizona in October of 2008, it became clear to me as I spoke that I
was addressing the disruptive innovators about which we had written:
those creating and implementing online learning.
Patrick, iNACOL’s president, CEO, and visionary, has remarked on many
occasions that when she was the director of the Office of Education
Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, she saw a lot of
education technology that was doing very little for students. But one
stood out—online learning—as having the same transformational power in
education as the personal computer did for computing. That’s why when
she left the Department of Education, she invested her time with the
online learning innovators.
me, it was a breath of fresh air. So many (certainly not all of course)
of the conferences at which I spoke had people with an old-edtech
mindset, which wasn’t going to get this country to where it needed to
In the years since that conference, online learning’s power as a disruptive innovation has become clearer.
classic form, for several years those most interested in reforming
education ignored its potential. Perhaps they saw it as a nice thing on
the fringes of education, but they didn’t believe it would have
it started in areas of what we call nonconsumption—where the
alternative was nothing—online learning has, as a generalized statement,
continued to improve, as all disruptive innovations do. Increasingly
online learning is less and less of something that just happens in
full-time virtual schools, and more and more something that takes place
in blended-learning ones. Millions of students are now learning online
in brick-and-mortar schools, in a variety of forms. The improvements
hold huge potential to transform our education system. Since Disrupting
Class came out, I’ve been amazed by how many people who at first ignored
online learning, are now paying attention to it.
The Virtual School Symposium has kept pace. As Tom Vander Ark wrote recently,
when he joined the iNACOL board three years ago, he “was hoping to see a
shift in emphasis from virtual schools to a focus on helping all
schools incorporate online and personal digital learning.” That shift
has happened. The conference has grown and improved with the
innovation—and in many cases is continuing to push and lead it.
couple weeks ago, I once again attended the Virtual School Symposium. I
left more energized than I could have imagined. iNACOL continues to
push the field toward adopting performance standards based on actual and
meaningful student outcomes—read their latest report released at the conference to learn more. It is leading the drive toward creating a competency-based learning
system that moves beyond our flawed time-based one. And, despite the
conference’s name, it has embraced online learning in all its forms, in
particular in blended and next-generation learning models. iNACOL isn’t
an education technology conference per se; it’s about creating a
student-centric learning system, which is what distinguishes it.
Technology is just the medium to do this, but it’s not the imperative in
and of itself.
is no guarantee, of course, that online learning will fulfill this
potential. As stories in the media attest to, just because something is
“online learning” doesn’t mean it is good. Nor is every “good” online
learning experience right for everyone. Online learning has the
potential to transform our education system, but the path forward will
not be straight. Caution, skepticism and guidance are all important.
This is why iNACOL’s presence and the conference that it runs are so
important in continuing to push the field toward its higher potential.
also excited me this year, however, went beyond iNACOL pushing the
field to innovate to improve learning for all students. Different
education innovators chose VSS this year as their hosting ground to
convene a variety of meetings around the conference to push them all to
continue to transform learning by problem solving with one another.
Seeing these meetings occur—behind the glitz and glamour of the tools
and various demos—is what inspired. The grassroots convenings focused on
self-improvement that took place around the larger convening is a
heartening sign, and it’s a good sign that iNACOL made a concerted
effort to support and embrace them.
2,100 people in attendance this year—from providers to charter and
district teachers to private school leaders—it’s clear the change is on.
The bigger challenge now lies ahead as the disruption seeks to fulfill
its bigger potential.
Michael B. Horn is the co-founder and Executive Director of
Education at the nonprofit Innosight Institute, a think tank
devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in
the social sector